Women and Love I
Women and Love II
Dido's Anger I
Female Vulnerability in Love I
Bill Long 3/24/09
Aeneid 4. 1-89
When I came of age in the mid-late 1960s, the feminist agenda was just in its infancy. The "first generation" feminists, as I call those who got things going from about 1960-1975, were interested in women as economic creatures, as independent choosers, as not needing men to complete their lives. I saw this part of the movement at my undergraduate university but, especially, in my Boston life in the mid-to-late 1970s. Because I hadn't established any adeptness in my relationships with women by that time, I completely bought into the radical feminist agenda--that men were, basically, evil because we had brought patriarchy on the West, that women longed to be free of male domination, that women were, primarily, interested in power and money and that any man who has the audacity to look on a woman as a sexual creature ought to be castrated or worse.
With this ideology haunting me on a daily basis, it is understandable that I believed that women really didn't want either love or relationships. They wanted power and economic heft. I believed this for years, to my detriment. Now, in middle age, I am discovering that most women don't mind being characterized as "relationally-oriented" or "interested in love."
I think one of the reasons that first generation feminists rebelled against traditional stereotypes of women is because, in fact, women are vulnerable in love and, in further fact, they are in general much more vulnerable in love than are men. Women have, as the traditionalists might say, "more to lose" by loving than do men. They give themselves completely to the relationship, they sell their souls and often move across continents to be with the guy, they do their best to maintain the relationship even when the guy is lukewarm at best. So, when there is a romantic fallout, the woman generally pays more for it. This, I am convinced, is the way things are these days. And, upon reading the first 89 lines of Book IV of the Aeneid, I discover that this tendency of women in our day is not so different than it was 2000 years ago. Hm. It sounds as if we have something that may be closer to "nature" than to "nurture" here...
Aeneid 4. 1-89
Book IV of the Aeneid describes the torrid and brief love affair between Dido and Aeneas and its devastating conclusion. The first 89 lines of this book lay out what I would call a template for female vulnerability in love. This template consists of five things: (1) being "swayed" by a man's story and appearance; (2) speaking of the story to a trusted female friend; (3) vowing not to enter into the world of love; (4) being convinced by a trusty female confidante to "give it a try" and (5) completely "losing her head" over the guy. If we understand the literary dynamics of this text, we go far, very much further than the feminist movement of the 1960s-1970s in fact, to understand the psychology of women in love.
1. Hearing the Story
Aeneas has narrated his story of shipwreck and distress to a rapt queen Dido (of Carthage) in Books II and III. The opening lines of Book IV tell us her reaction. I will use the English translation of Robert Fagles (2006), but point to the underlying Latin text for vividness of imagery/pictures.
"But the queen--too long she has suffered the pain of love,/ hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood,/ consumed by the fire buried in her heart./ The man's courage, the sheer pride of his line,/ they all come pressing home to her, over and over./ His looks, his words, they pierce her heart and cling--/no peace, no rest for her body, love will give her none" (lines 1-5 in Latin).
We note at the outset how hard it is to "translate" Latin poetry. Five Latin lines turn into seven English lines; Fagles' translation, though excellent, is in an edition where lines are numbered differently from the Latin edition--thus not allowing us easily to 'check' on the translation.
Let's massage these lines. Women are generally the hearers of men's stories, rather than the tellers of their own. Or, at least, when they tell their stories few people are listening. Aeneas had a great adventure. Indeed, Dido had also suffered greatly in her past, with her husband Sychaeus having been murdered by her brother Pygmalion, and she had led a crew from Sidonian Tyre to the north coast of Africa to set up as queen in Carthage. But that isn't the narrative that rules in Aeneid, even though it is mentioned. Aeneas will be the story-teller, and she will be the audience. A funny thing happens, however, once he begins to speak. She becomes smitten by everything about him. Virgil uses venatorial language to capture her reality. Already for a long time (iamdudum) she had been wounded (saucia) with a "grave love" (gravi cura). The wound (vulnus) was "nourishing" (alit) in her veins. Thus, the picture created is that love, like an arrow, not only penetrates the body but in some way is nourished by the body itself. This nourishing, of course, is painful and destructive in this case, but it is none the less real. The wound "gives aliment to" the veins. Like Rumor (Fama), which we will meet later in the book, the wound spreads through the nurturing channels of the veins. But the irony of her wound being nurtured is that her body wastes away through the nurturing of the wound. Images of healthy nourishing (alit) and wasting away or being consumed (carpitur) appear within the same line (2). She is being consumed by an "inner fire" (caeco igne).
The lines just quoted are even more alluring. Latin uses the indefinites multus and multa ("many") to describe the frequent occasions where she reflects on his appearance and lineage. Story becomes an occasion for her speculation about his life and lineage. Like a stream that feeds into a wide delta, so the story feeds into wide series of imagined images about the very things he is narrating. She can, as it were, see the shipwrecks, the burning Troy, the daring escapes, the courageous last stands, the strong Aeneas carrying his aged father on his back. The images of hunting continue. When she thinks of his noble bearing, the text runs, literally: "His looks and words beome stuck, infixed, to her breast." It is as if a new stitching process is happening, but this time rather than a garment being made we have words being stitched to the heart. She becomes impaled on his features. Rather than being trapped in a net or confined in a pit, she is pierced by the looks and words. The final lines of the section says it all: "Nor does love give (dat) a peaceful quiet to her limbs." Love might give a lot of things to a person, but one thing that she doesn't have is quiet. Possible images, then, of surfs crashing, of waves building, of nets being cast, of being trapped in pits, all are eschewed for the language of fixation, of hunting, of being pierced with an arrow, an arrow that nourishes the very veins of the body it consumes.
The first stage of female vulnerability in love is here stated, in just five lines. She is smitten by hearing his story. His story gives her occasion to notice his features and speculate on his lineage. She does this over and over again. She is flooded by emotions as her veins are nourishing the dart of love. No quiet is left her; she can't control her mind's rush. She has to tell someone. That is the subject of the next essay.